The first thing I remember stealing was a pack of Fruitstripe. You know, that rainbow-ed out zebra gum that used to come in all those different colors — red, green, blue, yellow. Everyone knows that color is WAY more important than flavor when you’re a little kid. So oh hot damn, Zebra gum was my jam. I was 5 when my mother caught me stealing. I had immediately ripped it from my pocket as we drove away from our local 7/11. You best believe my lioness of a mother turned that car around and had me march right up to the register and apologize. And while I clearly hadn’t watched enough Aladdin yet to succeed at a life of crime (though 12-year-old me did double down on my illustrious thieving career and once ran with an ice cream cone from a street vendor in Florence) I did become something of a thief in my own way. In fact, I think we all have a bit of that “street rat” in us.
You might have just paused and said “Uh, No. Excuse me. I’m not a criminal” with a sassy finger wave or a hand to the face but I’m talking about a different kind of snatching. I’m talking about something closer to osmosis. For example, do you bite your lip when you’re considering something — just ever so slightly on the left side of your mouth? (And Jesus, if you’re a girl who does this, please never stop.) Well, I hate to break it to you, but you didn’t invent that. It probably came from that sexy fox of a mother you have. One day, there she was in the backseat of your daddy’s car in a prep school sweater with her skirt pulled up to reveal just a little thigh. She was giving your old man a look with those puppy dog brown eyes that said “maybe if you’re lucky.” She knew right then and there that the lip biting would forever get her exactly what she wanted. It made your dad and his Joe-cool leather jacket shtick into a man-puddle. HEY! It’s my fantasy about your parents and they are doing it in the 50s. Anyways, 20 years later, she’s in the living room and you’re a wee child of seven on the floor. Your dad comes in and asks your mother to do some loathsome chore. Boom. Out comes the lip and your dad sighs, kisses her on the forehead (which is a great “I can’t help but love you” kiss) and does it himself. See, you were learning something during all those new age (aka over-hyped) Baby Mozart videos — Men love the lip bite. We like the grandeur Baywatch hair flips and the way girls walk with their hips as if the ocean is rocking beneath ‘em.
I don’t mean to single out women here. Everyone’s mannerisms, our specific vocal inflections, the way we tell stories so loud and with such emphatic enthusiasm that every waitress at the restaurant is on the watch for us to knock over table four’s incoming drink order (maybe that one is just me) — they’re all stolen. You meet someone, like certain things about them and slowly when they are not around, you start to blend a part of them into you. (Just make sure you start when they aren’t around. You WILL get called out, street rat.) I stole snorting from a very pretty girl who in turn stole the word “Oye” from me. Funny thing is: I stole oye from a girl freshmen year of high school who wouldn’t even give me the time of day. It didn’t matter. We didn’t need to be friends. I saw something I liked, contemplated it in my head and one day it was a part of me.
It doesn’t even have to be something that makes mild sense within the context of “you” at the time. I stole the way I clear my throat from my grandfather, who for a long time, smoked two-packs of “cowboy killers” a day. I smoke maybe one cigarette a month. But oh boy, do I ever sound like him when I need to flush the wind pipes. I can’t stop, won’t stop and wouldn’t want to — it’s a part of lineage — a testament to someone I
knew and loved.
In a way, we’re all testimonials, fleshy monuments, to the people who have impacted our lives, and influenced our choices. I’ve been a testament since the first moments of my birth. My birth certificate reads: William Joseph Salm III, and to a small degree, everything I do will be connected to the two men who came before me. People say I look just like my dad but even if we didn’t share the same name and a very similarly handsome face (just spitting the truth here, folks) I’ll always be a legacy to him. The way I constantly shake my right foot when my legs are crossed or hanging over something is proof enough that I’m his son. Yes, it’s a small shred of proof. But it’s an integral one.
We all have these stolen quirks. They make up who we are and we can’t help but steal them. My aunt Laura showed me the know-how that real Midwesterners scream obscenities at the opponent and our own team when they suck (which happened a lot growing up in Cleveland). My other father Marc taught me that Michael Jordan wasn’t just the best player to ever touch a basketball — but he was to be the most hated and the most feared. I could live in Chicago for the next 10 decades and still hold that onto that truth.
Maybe it’s because when we love someone or something — and I’m talking about a broad spectrum of love — we want to keep it close forever. So in a way, we do. We bottle up different parts of what we like and store it within us. You can love your hometown and how everyone from there talks – so you choose to hold on desperately to your native accent in a foreign country. You can love a sports team to the point where you wish every year the team was that same scrappy overachiever from ‘98 — even if later on they were better and more talented. We all gush over the way our loved one’s smell so much that we swan dive into their beds, wrapping ourselves in their dirty sheets. They might apologize and say that the bed isn’t really that clean right now. But we won’t care and neither do they because they’re stuffing their face into our pillows, taking deep whiffs of our stench when we’re peeing in the bathroom.
I guess what I’m really saying is we’re all Aladdin sneaking into each other’s Cave of Wonders, grabbing lamps, hoping to rub a little magic out of one of them. Except the magic that comes out isn’t in the form of 3 wishes or a genie. What does come out are all these fantastic moments and quirks that slowly shape who we are. This weekend I rubbed a lamp and out came a fantastic Chicago Pride parade and an impromptu pizza party with some of my best friends. I rubbed a lamp this morning and out came the knowledge that my grandfather liked Johnny Walker Red — so I’m going to try that out for myself. Who knows, maybe I’ll steal his taste for it from that big sandy cat’s mouth or maybe the cave will come crashing down around me. Either way I’ll still be running through the streets of Agrabah. No, there won’t be any big blue Robin Williams in my life, changing everything in the blink of an eye. But slowly, I’ll amass my kingdom.